Students from Windtown, Navan, Co, Meath, who previously struggled to reach school on a daily basis in all weathers, met last Monday with community minister Joe O’Brien and officials to highlight the value of their unique urban schoolbus and to call for ongoing support.
Five of the six pupils who met the minister are now doing their Leaving Cert and all were described as “very motivated” with solid career aspirations and plans for the future.

Until 2017, Beaufort College pupils from the far side of town who walked for nearly an hour each morning often arrived wet, tired and hungry. Students frequently missed days and some quit school early. Local councillors had sympathy for them, especially in winter weather on dark mornings, and supported calls for a dedicated bus service.

What began as a pilot scheme proved to be an overwhelmingly success. A school completion officer told us it had effectively achieved a 100% success rate. Previously, children from the Windtown area had an average school attendance rate of only 80%.

The students did not qualify for a Dept. of Education schoolbus, because their average walk of 4.5km through Navan’s busy urban terrain was 0.3km short of the guidelines.

Last year, when the service seemed to be in jeopardy during the pandemic, parents rallied and walked the bus-route with their children, successfully highlighting the need for it to receive continued funding and support. At that point, the Department of Rural and Community Development became involved.

Result: “It’s made them feel part of the school.”

When, on Monday, Feb 1st, the six students met Minister O’Brien for lunch in the offices of Meath County Council, they spoke about the value of the bus service.

“They were very clear they wanted to be in school and they wanted this transport service,” said school completion programme co-ordinator Christina Nestor. She hopes that funding for Windtown schoolbus (currently funded through the Dormant Accounts Fund) will be “ring-fenced” for the future.

• Christina Nestor, local School Completion Programme co-ordinator.

“The success for our young people is that they have consistent transport to school every day,” she said. They also now reach school everyday in time to join the breakfast club and they take part in the after-school homework club before taking the bus home.

“It’s made them feel special and feel part of the school community,” said Ms. Nestor.

O’Brien: “You’re setting a great example.”

During his visit, Minister O’Brien said, “I am delighted to meet these wonderful students here today who were fortunate to benefit from the Windtown Student Bus Service, funded by my Department. This bus service is a tremendous asset in the avoidance of school dropout and the successful completion of their secondary education. You are setting a great example for your peers, your family and other members of the community.”

• Minister Damien English, Meath Co Co Cathaoirleach Sean Drew, Minister Joe O’Brien and Cllr Yemi Adenuga.

School Completion officer: “It has been 100% successful.”

Ms. Nestor told us, “It has been 100% successful. When I say 95% attendance, the 5% (absent) may be due to young people who are sick or who have genuine reasons for their absence from school.”

“They are all very motivated,” she added.

Recalling the successful campaign last year for the service’s retention, she said, “The parents were extremely pro-active. They campaigned and they walked the distance and we got media coverage. It was very much the parents voice with our support as well, as school completion officers. We really were engaged in community development.”

• Local Links is a national service and is known in the Navan area as Flexilinks.

Chuffed by level of support

She recalled receiving a call from the Department of Rural and Community Development about their interest in supporting the initiative.

“We were chuffed. They had heard of the benefits of the bus project,” she said.

She thanked Minister O’Brien again for his support.

“I want to see the money ring-fenced,” she added.

• Taking the Flexibus to Beaufort College means pupils from the other side of town can reach school dry, in time for a breakfast and without having to miss homework club after school.

She had many people and agencies to thank, including the friendly bus drivers, Miriam McKenna from Flexibus (aka Local Link) which funded initial pilot, Fiona Fallon from Meath County Council, Cllr Eddie Fennessy, parents led by Mark O’Halloran, successive principals of Beaufort College, Enda Lydon Principal of Naomh Eoin in Windtown, and Meath CYPSC. She also thanked Cllr Yemi Adenuga and Navan-based Minister of State, Damien English, who were both present for the school pupils’ meeting with Minister O’Brien.

School Completion Prog.: “We need all the funding back”.

Looking to the future locally and nationally of the School Completion Programme, Ms. Nestor said, “We have four project workers, including myself, but we need a fifth person. In the recession, we lost 30% of our funding; we got 5% of that back last year, but we need all the funding back.”

The School Completion Programme, in Navan and across the State, is supported through the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools (DEIS) Programme, funded by Tusla.